Mai Chau

This is one of the closest places to Hanoi where you can visit a ‘real’ Nontagnard village. Mai chau is rural with no town centre as such – rather, it’s a collection of villages, farms and huts spread out through a large valley. It’s a beautiful area, and most people here are ethnic White Thai, said to be distantly related to tribes in Thailand, Laos and China.

Things to do here include staying overnight in one of the Thai stilt houses, walking across the beautiful valley through the rice fields and trekking to minority villages. A typical walk farther afield covers 7km to 8km; a local guide can be hired for about US$5.

Although most local people no longer wear traditional dress, the Thai women are masterful weavers who ensure that there is plenty of traditional-style clothing to buy in the village centre or when strolling through the pleasant lances. You will probably see women weaving on looms under of inside their houses in the village. Refreshingly, the Thai of Mai Chau are far less likely to employ strong-arm sales tactics than their H’mong counterparts in Sapa: polite bar-gaining is the norm.

If you’d like more adventure, there is a popular 18km trak from Lac village (Ban Lac) in Mai Chau, to Xa Linh village, near a mountain pass (elevation 1000m) on Hwy 6. Lac village is home to the White Thai people, while the inhabitants of Xa Linh are H’mong. The trek is too strenuous to be done as a day hike, so you’ll have to spend the night in a small village along the way. You’ll need a local guide, but, as part of the deal, a pre-arranged car will pick you up at the mountain pass and bring you back to Mai Chau. Be forewarned that you climb 600m in altitude on this route and the trail can be dangerously slippery in the rain.

Longer treks of three to seven days are possible. Try contacting Hoai Binh Tourism Company (088-854374, fax 854372) at the Hoa Binh Hotel I to make arrangements, or simply ask around in the Mai Chau villages of Lac or Pom Coong.

Many cafes and travel agencies in Hanoi run inexpensive trips to Mai Chau. These include all transport, food and accommodation.

Places to Stay & Eat

Mai Chau Guesthouse (851812; rooms from 120,000d) is a decent, if basic, state-run guesthouse on the main road through the valley. Rooms at the back have balconies and views across the rice fields to the mountains.

However, most travelers choose to walk a few hundred metres back from the ‘main’ roadside and stay in the thai stilt houses (50,000d per person) of Lac or Pom coong village. Lac is the busier of the two, and villagers will sometimes organize (for a fee) traditional song-and-dance performances in the evenings.

If you are anticipating an exotic Indiana Jones encounter (sharing a bowl of eyeball soup, taking part in some ancient fertility ritual and so on), thank again. Spending a night in one of Mai Chau’s minority villages is a very ‘civilized’ experience: the local authorities have made sure that the villages are up to tourist standards, so electricity flows, modern amenities abound and there are hygienic western-style toilets. Mattresses and mosquito nets are provided. While this is not a bad thing per se, it may not live up to your rustic hill-tribe trkking expectations. Tour operators are no helping the situation: somehow they cannot seem to resist slapping up their oversized advertisement stickers wherever their groups stop to eat or drink, even if that happens to be on these lovely wooden stilt houses.

Despite (or perhaps because of) modern amenities, most people come away pleased with the experience. The Thai villages are exceedingly friendly and, when it’s all said and done, even with TV and the hum of the refrigerator, it is a peaceful place and you’re still sleeping in a thatched-roof stilt house on split-bamboo floors. Reservations are not necessary; you can just show up, but it’s advisable to arrive before dark (preferably by mid-afternoon). You can book a meal at the house where you’re staying for around 20,000d, depending on what you require. The women here have learned to cook everything from fried eggs to French fries, but try to eat the local food – it’s more interesting.

Getting There & Away

Mai chau is 135km from Hanoi and just 5km south of Tong Dau junction on Hwy 6 (the Hanoi-Dien Bien Phu route).

There’s no direct public transport to Mai Chau from Hanoi; however, buses to nearby Hoa binh (12,000d, two hours) are pelntyful. From Hoa Binh there are scheduled buses to Mai Chau (20,000d, two hours) at 6am, noon, 1pm, 4pm daily. Usually these stop at Tong Dau junction; a xe om from there to Mai Chau proper will cost about 5000d.

Theoretically, foreigners must pay a 5000d entry fee to Mai Chau; there’s a toll booth at the state-run guesthouse on the ‘main’ road. Sometimes it’s staffed, sometimes not.